Mario Antonio Porras ('20) was scrolling through Facebook in October when he saw an ad pop up for Dr Pepper's Tuition Giveaway, offering $2 million in scholarships.
"I was like, 'Ooh, I should try it,'" he says.
The vocal performance major then sent a one-minute video, displaying operatic techniques and expressing his goal to give a voice to the Latinx and LGBTQ+ communities in an industry that is often underrepresented.
Porras ended up winning a $50,000 scholarship from Dr Pepper's Tuition Giveaway that will go toward his pursuit of a master's degree to further his career in opera. It also eased a burden in a tough year in which both of his grandparents died from COVID-19 and his mother caught the virus, but survived. He was finishing his senior recital and applying to schools while grieving for them.
"We were very close, and to this day, I still don't think I've processed it correctly since I pushed through to finish my degree," he says. "It's been extremely tough and I miss them, especially my grandma who helped raise me and my three older sisters while my single mom worked endlessly to give us a home and food."
The process of vying for the Dr Pepper scholarship had its own challenges -- involving trivia cramming sessions, lots of anxious waiting and a surprise appearance by country singer Kane Brown.
Porras had forgotten about the video until he received a call in November from Dr Pepper saying he was a finalist. But he had to compete in a trivia contest with another finalist.
"Oh, shoot, now I have to be good at trivia," he thought. "Trivia is literally everything."
He downloaded an app, and researched the history of Dr Pepper. He couldn't stop thinking about it as the day of the trivia contest was quickly approaching and he was at the fall commencement Nov. 22.
"Even at that ceremony, I thought, 'Dang it, I have trivia tomorrow,'" he says.
That Monday, officials called him up. He confessed he was nervous.
The official said there was a technical glitch. He had to wait another 30 minutes.
Finally, he was in.
But he noticed something odd about the woman's location.
"Why is she in a music studio room?" he thought.
The woman said they weren't playing trivia.
"What? Are you serious?" Porras thought.
Then Brown appeared -- and announced Porras won $50,000.
"My emotions were everywhere," he says.
Porras was able to talk to Brown about the music industry.
"It was a casual talk," Porras says. "Anyone can do great things. It gives me hope for my future someday."
The scholarship comes as a relief for Porras, who has applied to eight colleges.
"It makes me feel better and more secure," says Porras, who will have to wait until spring to know where he was accepted.
Porras, who grew up in El Paso, has been a musician all his life. He played the clarinet in the sixth grade, and then his sisters encouraged him to join the choir in high school. In his first year, the choir director moved him to an advanced class, and he later earned UIL All-State Choir honors.
The director told Porras he could make it a career.
"That's what pushed me to do this," he says. "I know it's very competitive. You have a very competitive mindset. You have to be willing to put in the work."
He has appeared in productions of Gianni Schicchi and Don Giovanni. He appreciates singing for its distinctive qualities.
"Compared to other instruments, it's part of you," Porras says. "My voice is my voice. It's a unique thing no one can mimic. We can say words, poems and prayers in different languages. It has meaning behind it. I can make it my own."